Column Editor: John D. Riley (Against the Grain Contributor and Owner, Gabriel Books)
The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax. (ISBN: 978-1-61039-821-3, Public Affairs 2017, $16.99 pb.)
The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack. (ISBN: 978-0-300-12045-5, Yale University Press 2012, $30.00 hb.)
Nam June Paik: Global Visionary by John G. Hanhardt and Ken Hakuta. (ISBN: 978-1-907804-20-5, Smithsonian American Art Museum 2012, $55.00 hb.)
Comic Book History of Comics: Birth of a Medium by Fred Van Lente. (ISBN: 978-1-63140-925-7, IDW Publishing 2017, $19.95 pb.)
My column for this issue is an omnium gatherum of books that reflect a summer’s worth of reading and traveling. I always like to buy books whenever I visit a museum or new bookstore. I feel like supporting the effort of the booksellers and I always find something unique while I’m at it. This summer I visited the new Harvard art museum which brings together three older art museums under one roof in a new building designed by Renzo Piano. The Fogg, Sackler, and Busch-Reisinger Art Museums have all been brought together in a collection that rivals any other art museum in New England, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I came specially to see their multimedia exhibit dedicated to Nam June Paik and found an excellent book on his career there.
Later in the summer I visited the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts. This is another World Class museum that houses some of the finest Impressionist paintings in the world. The Singer sewing machine family amassed a grand collection at a time when, oddly enough, Impressionism was out of favor in France. The Family also funded the building of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I had come to the museum to view a special collection of women Impressionist painters. While there I found The Woman Reader a unique book which is focused on books that women have read over the ages.
While on vacation in Maine I visited a new bookshop in Portland that is owned by the daughter of New England author Richard Russo. The shop is called simply “Print: a Bookstore.” It is a perfect example of The Revenge of the Analog with its expansive sections on writing, editing, and books about books.
Luckily Comic Book History of Comics came across the desk at my bookshop Gabriel Books and I avidly took it home to read, as I had never been a huge comic book reader other than during the Underground Comic era in the 60s and I wanted to know about the history of such a popular medium.
In research for his book, The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, Mr. Sax says he found that it was less a case of older generations reaching back to familiar formats from their youth than teenagers and 20-somethings discovering turntables and LPs, paperback novels and film cameras. “The younger someone was, the more digitally exposed their generation was,” he writes near the end of this book, “the less I found them enamored by digital technology, and the more they were wary of its effects.” These kids were falling in love with analog.
The author explores the so called “analog technologies” such as vinyl records, print books, hand written notebooks, film cameras and movies, and board games. The author previously wrote a book on the survival of old time delicatessens, Save the Deli: In search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen, so he is both a fan and champion of the tried and true. In the book he also notes that the new fans of delis are younger people in search of “authentic tastes.” He is lucky to be a Canadian and to be able to enjoy the thriving Jewish deli culture that still lives on in Montreal.
The author has a great chapter on the popularity of hand written notebooks, focusing on the rise of the Moleskine line of notebooks that sell over twenty million copies a year. The company consciously sought to imitate an older style of notebook, binding each one in supple leather to enhance its tactile properties. They even created ads featuring Ernest Hemingway and other writers who had used such hand wrought notebooks for their travel jottings. I still find my wire coil pocket notebook to be the most effective way to capture quick notes and to store the writings for future reference.
The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack is a scholarly look at women’s reading habits from Ancient Egypt and China up to our modern era. The author made great use of diaries and even some library catalogs to trace these reading patterns. She makes note of how women were discouraged from reading and gaining literacy skills for many centuries. One interesting anecdote tells the tale of one woman who found a way to surmount that difficulty. In the Middle Ages under scholasticism women were banned from the universities, but some found novel ways to circumvent those rules, such as cross dressing to gain admission to classes. In Krakow, Poland towards the end of the fourteenth century a young woman who had inherited a large fortune, perhaps from her deceased husband, disguised herself as a man and studied for two years. When her cover was blown and she was brought before a tribunal to find out why she had done this she replied “Amor studii” or love of learning. The judge of the tribunal understood her passion and she was then made an abbess who worked diligently to encourage reading and learning among the young women in her charge. There are similar stories from Islamic and Jewish medieval culture where women found a way to pursue reading and learning. Some went on to flourish as scholars in those traditions. We now live in an era where we are well aware of the impact of women as the prime movers in the world of reading
Nam June Paik: Global Visionary is a bit of an anomaly on this list, since it deals with video art. I am particularly interested in video and I found this to be a great introduction to this revolutionary video artist. I was familiar with some of Paik’s work, such as his cello piece where a woman played a “cello” that was actually constructed from two television sets. He was also famous in his day for creating towers of television sets and even “gardens” of glowing cathode ray tubes. Paik worked during an era when self-made videos and their broadcast on television was very new, in fact he was the innovator in this area. He was definitely a utopian and sought to humanize technology and sought to make a world-wide art form that was critical of contemporary programming. Paik collaborated with Joseph Beuys and John Cage and he was part of the Fluxus Neo-Dada movement. To see more of what Paik created you could check out his video Good Morning Mr. Orwell, broadcast world-wide by satellite in 1984 or even my short video on YouTube entitled Nam June Paik Exhibit at Harvard Art Museum. The Smithsonian Museum is the repository for Paik’s archives and art works, as they are perhaps the only museum capable of working with the artist’s by now obsolete television and video technologies.
As mentioned above, I was happy to discover Comic Book History of Comics which tells a thorough history of the genre from “The Yellow Kid” (which incidentally gave name to Yellow Journalism as it ran in William Randolph Hearst’s jingoistic papers) through stand-alone comic books, animated movie cartoons, and our modern explosion of interest in “sequential art.” I had never followed comic books much, so I was happy to discover this book which recounts its history in a comic book form that allows it to illustrate and even parody its subject matter. I was also happy to find out more about the prolific careers of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Will Eisner. I was also surprised to find out more about early women and minority comic book artists. It was fun to find out that Patricia Highsmith, the author of Strangers on a Train and the Talented Mr. Ripley, began her career fresh out of Barnard as a comic book script writer, a trade she kept at for nearly seven years.
The only drawback I found in the book was its obsessive tracking of the vagaries of comic book publishing houses and their rivalries. The fact that publishing comic books was so fad oriented is driven home by the many incarnations that these companies took trying to stay solvent. Comics also took a big hit in 1953 with the imposition of the Comics Code Authority which sought to censor the adventurous, albeit violent, trend in comics at the time. The code gave rise to the more innocuous comics of the 1950s. Mad Magazine managed to evade the 1953 code by using a slick paper stock for their covers and thus qualified as a “magazine” and so skirted all the rules. Mad has been a savior of youthful sanity throughout its long publishing history. It was only with the rise of Underground Comics in the 1960s and their different distribution channels (i.e., headshops) that comics were freed up again to be their raucous anarchic selves. We are now in an explosion of what Will Eisner termed “sequential art” with comics available everywhere and the rise of the graphic novel giving artists even more room to innovate.